An Unnamed City, One Week in a Mid-1990s "Present"
City of Devils
Seven was shot in Los Angeles, but it isn't set in L.A. The screenwriter was inspired by how much he hated living in New York City, but it is not set in New York City. Neither is it set in Philadelphia or Chicago or even Peoria, Illinois.
The name of the city isn't clarified because it could be any city in the United States. Evil like this could crop up anywhere at any time. Seven is a rumination on evil in general, not in a specific location.
So, we have a city with city-type sounds. Honking. Subway trains. Pedestrians yelling.
Stores that sell kinky leather goods are commonplace. John Doe has a grisly murder weapon made in one, but the owner says, "I've made weirder s*** than that, so what?" (We do not want to know what is weirder than the knife-tipped codpiece.)
There's a "massage parlor" where kinky sex takes place on a regular basis. Its owner, when asked if he enjoys running his business, says, "No, no, I don't. But that's life, isn't it?" His answer is the same one you would get if you asked Somerset if he likes living in the city.
Often, there are violent acts, like a man stabbed in both eyes. (Somerset: "I don't understand this place any longer.") In his apartment, Somerset has boxes stacked up because he'll soon be moving away.
In contrast, Mills' apartment has boxes everywhere because he and his wife are moving in. Their apartment is charmingly decorated, but the dogs are confined to a small newspaper-covered space, and the subway shakes their apartment. (As Matt Goldberg observed for Collider, this is the city shaking the foundations of their home in a much more innocent way than John Doe—the manifestation of evil in the city—will later shake the foundations of their lives.)
People in a city don't pay attention to anyone else. As Somerset says, you have to yell "fire," not "help," to get attention.
What John Doe is doing is a twisted version of a cry for help. In his sick mind, he feels like he's helping humanity. "Wanting people to listen," he says, "you can't just tap them on the shoulder anymore, you have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you'll notice you've got their strict attention." The murders are his sledgehammer, and he definitely has people paying attention.
The one upside to living in this city is its amazing library, a building that's been featured in many movies. We would totally study there on two conditions. 1. We thought we'd make it out alive. 2. The FBI wasn't tracking us. Even the library, that sacred space, has a dark side in Seven. Somerset reveals that the FBI tracks books people check out and keeps them in a database. "Legal, illegal, these terms don't apply." In Seven, even the library isn't safe.